Were the Romans racist?

A taste of Mary Beard's blog discussion of Big B(r)other and the ancients:

But, strikingly, it’s usually claimed that neither Greeks nor Romans bothered very much about skin colour. This was a time ‘before colour prejudice’.

It’s certainly the case that there seems to have been no general idea of social, cultural or intellectual inferiority based on the colour of a person’s skin. There was no homogeneous slave class, of a different race and colour from their masters. And, in fact, exactly what skin colours were represented, and in what numbers, in the multi-cultural population of the Roman empire is something of puzzle. The second century AD emperor, Septimius Severus who came from modern Libya definitely wasn’t black (even though that’s sometimes asserted); but then he probably wasn’t as white as some of his marble busts make him seem either.


Lorna Robinson's work gets a Sunday Times article

The Sunday Times

January 21, 2007

Breathing life into Latin

One teacher is fighting to stop the classics from dying out in state schools, but is it too late, asks Sian Griffiths

‘Salve, magister!” In a low-slung white painted school in east London a class of 30 nine-year-olds are not yet used to the novelty of having their very own Latin teacher.

Still, their chorused welcome to Lorna Robinson is enthusiastic (perhaps in anticipation of a lesson that will feature Latin bingo — “tres, quinque, septem” Lorna calls out as the children cross off the numbers on their cards — with sweets flung across the room as prizes).

Benthal primary, set near council estates in deepest Hackney, is a long way from the rolling acres of the privileged boarding school Wellington college, in Berkshire, where annual day-school fees are £19,000 a year and where, just a year ago, Robinson was the Latin mistress, drilling the well-heeled pupils in Greek verbs.

But the Oxford graduate quit her well-paid job to go on a mission — to save classics in state schools. “When I was at university state-educated classicists were few and far between,” says Robinson, 28. “I think it’s very important all children have the chance to study these languages.”

But isn’t it a hopeless task? Figures published last week show a continuing depressing slump: the number starting classics degrees last year dropped 7% on 2005, to just 868 undergraduates, with most of those getting their grounding in the subject in private schools.

The prediction is that in state schools Greek could be defunct within five years, Latin dead in a decade. Only one exam board still offers GCSE Latin. Even in the private sector the thinking is that the subject will be moribund by 2030.

Robinson, however, is upbeat. Since launching Iris, her project to save the classics, which is backed by the Conservative higher education spokesman Boris Johnson, she has been swamped by calls with 10 schools a week getting in touch asking for help to put on Latin and Greek classes, workshops and talks.

As well as teaching at Benthal one day a week Robinson is giving classes at another primary school, three comprehensives and tutoring five students privately. And she’s linking up lecturers and teachers across the country with private schools such as King’s college school in Wimbledon, which are considering opening their classics classes to local children.

“I think there’s a swing of the pendulum,” she says. “Many more schools than I expected are getting in touch and seeing the benefits of having Latin on offer to their children.”

She thinks children should start young — hence the primary classes, which will also, it is thought, improve the youngsters’ English as they grasp grammatical concepts such as subject, object and noun.

“I really hope they will want to carry on learning Latin later on,” she says, looking round the class of nine-year-olds, who are huddled round their tables trying to construct a Latin sentence to describe a tree. She’s already got several enthusiasts at Benthal, including young Arthur Salisbury, who says he is keen to carry on with the subject. “It’s interesting — and not that hard,” he says.

But if Arthur runs into the problems experienced by Christina Edwards at secondary school he will have an uphill struggle. A former pupil at a girls’ grammar school in Buckinghamshire, she had to fight to get the school to put on a Latin class, finally taking her A-level in the subject at a neighbouring boys’ school. Even her application to study classics at Cambridge, where she’s now in her final year, was queried by some of her teachers.

“It’s strange to think how different my life would have been if I hadn’t fought for Latin all those years ago,” says Edwards.

Robinson’s fight for pupils such as Edwards will be won only if she manages to persuade the government to give more support to the subject, paying for more classes in schools.

But ministers don’t seem too keen. Last year Bill Rammell became the latest education minister to suggest that a sharp fall in the number of university applicants wanting to study “non-vocational subjects” such as classics might not be “necessarily a bad thing”. Subjects that led straight to a good job might be a better choice, was the implication.

In the playground children used to chant: “Latin is a language that’s as dead as dead can be. It killed the ancient Romans, and now it’s killing me.” Despite Robinson’s best efforts, not, maybe, for too much longer.

For more information, visit http://www.irismagazine.org

Northern Schools Classics Conference

The programme of the Northern Schools Classics Conference on March 12th at Stonyhurst is here.

Speakers include Dr Peter Jones on Greek Epic, Tom Lloyd on Thucydides and Herodotus, Elizabeth Belcher on career prospects for Classicists, Professor Stephen Harrison on the Aeneid, Dr Scott Scullion on tragedy and Donald Hill on Ovid.

Sounds good. Contact details are included on the ARLT website here.